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Evil Empire

The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s, Tom Engelhardt, Haymarket Books, 269 pages

By Brad Birzer

On Nov. 9, 1989 a number of students crowded into a tight dormitory room, one of the few with a TV, in Zahm Hall at the University of Notre Dame. They had gathered to watch history unfold, as thousands of East and West Germans came together armed with sledgehammers, hope, and joy to tear down the Berlin Wall, skipping, sliding, and shimmering across the top of that concrete monstrosity. Only eight years before, President Reagan, under the watchful eye of Our Lady of the Lake atop her Golden Dome, had stood a few buildings down from Zahm and identified communism as “some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.” The prophecy was coming true, right there on the screen.

[1]Since the early 1960s, Ronald Reagan had been planning an end to the Cold War in what might only be described as the equivalent of a mixture of fantasy baseball and the board game Risk. He stated his aim openly throughout his two terms as president, but predictably few believed him. The kind dismissed his words as simple optimism from a lovable actor. The cynical—including those who helped shape public opinion—dismissed Reagan’s words as misguided, destabilizing, idiotic, colored by too many White House screenings of “Star Wars.”

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But even after Reagan’s vision was fulfilled, the Cold War did not end. The events of 1989 should have offered the West some breathing room, a time to rethink the purpose of our nation and reinvigorate republican ideals. Instead, the past two decades, under Republican and Democratic administrations alike, have revealed America and the West as morally and spiritually bankrupt. Plunder and torture best symbolize the bloated American Empire of the last 20 years, a force that exists merely for the sake of self-perpetuation. Our standing in the world has declined precipitously. At home, many are angry and want to change, organize, and harangue. Despite their best intentions, they stand impotent, comprehending neither the past nor the present, looking at the future—when not navel-gazing—with understandable dread.

When voters elected Barack Obama in 2008, his supporters acclaimed him higher than a prophet; he was messianic. As one fine and intelligent person—an expert in high tech as well as a farmer—wrote to me in immediate post-election euphoria, “Brad, why are you so upset, don’t you realize that we finally have a chance to end war and poverty, permanently?”

What the Obama administration has delivered, of course, is not only the continuation of the policies of the previous three administrations but a profound exaggeration of them. If anything, we suffer more violations of our privacy and civil liberties now than at any time during the Bush administration, all in the name of a national-security state that keeps the populace in its place while perpetuating war abroad.

In his soul-searching, illuminating, and often depressing look at the unholy ménage of Demos, Leviathan, and Mars, Tom Englehardt probes deeply into the war culture of Washington, D.C. He notes that only two positions have any real voice in contemporary public-policy debate: those who want more of this and those who want more of that. The key word is “more.” As Englehardt writes, when it comes to conflict overseas “however contentious the disputes in Washington, however dismally the public viewed the war, however much the president’s war coalition might threaten to crack open, the only choices were between more and more.” More drones, more troops, more nation-building.

So much for campaign promises and the new messiah who would end war and poverty permanently. The first military budget Obama submitted, Engelhardt notes, was larger than the last one tendered by the Bush administration. “Because the United States does not look like a militarized country, it’s hard for Americans to grasp that Washington is a war capital, that the United States is a war state, that it garrisons much of the planet, and that the norm for us is to be at war somewhere (usually, in fact, many places) at any moment.”

Further, as the Washington Post revealed this past summer in a penetrating series on the intelligence community, no one knows exactly how many persons in how many agencies are spending what levels of taxpayer dollars to keep the espionage machine running. Engelhardt argues the intelligence communities are as bloated as any part of the Department of Defense. (Too bad we don’t still call it the Department of War, which would be far more honest.)

As further evidence of our degeneration into a martial empire, the U.S. sells 70 percent of the weapons in the international arms trade. In almost every way, Engelhardt contends, the United States precipitates the militarization of the globe.

How far and fast we’ve fallen since the relatively peaceful days of the Reagan era. Four interventionist administrations later, we find ourselves as the leaders of international vice and terror. What happened, Englehardt asks, to the republic our Founders bequeathed to us? What have we done with and to our inheritance?

In the background, I can hear Steve Horgarth’s wonderfully English voice from the film “Brave”: “The Cold War’s gone, but those bastards will find us another one. They’re here to protect you, don’t you know. Get used to it.” He was right.

The bastards have placed barbed wire, barricades, cameras, and uniformed persons throughout the once republican capital of the United States, Washington, D.C. Those bastards control the levers of power throughout the country, not just inside the Beltway. They just made my wife and I remove our shoes and belts and hand over to the federal government any bottles of liquids with three ounces or more. The bastards are everywhere. And it seems America isn’t enough for them: avarice begets avarice.

With an excellent mind and an equally fine pen, Engelhardt demonstrates true patriotism to the America founding and to the larger humane and irenic ideals of the West:

What a world might be like in which we began not just to withdraw our troops from one war to fight another, but to seriously scale down the American global mission, close those hundreds of bases—as of 2010, there were almost 400 of them, macro to micro, in Afghanistan alone—and bring our military home is beyond imagining. To discuss such obviously absurd possibilities makes you an apostate to America’s true religion and addiction, which is force.  However much it might seem that most of us are peaceably watching our TV sets or computer screens or iPhones, we Americans are also—always—marching to war. We may not all bother to attend the church of our new religion, but we all tithe. We all partake. In a sense we live peaceably in a state of war.

Reading such good prose invigorates like little else in this world of sorrows. But one should not consider Engelhardt merely a writer of golden prose. This body has a soul as well, and Engelhardt convincingly presents evidence as well as argument throughout the book.

In the first chapter, he shows how the George W. Bush administration went from nothing to everything, how 9/11 “called” Bush to lead a crusade and to give his presidency drive, and perhaps most importantly how the country came to be transformed into a “homeland.” Next, Engelhardt considers how to garrison a planet: “Imagine the hubris involved in the idea of being ‘global policemen’ or ‘sheriff’ and marching into a Dodge City that was nothing less than Planet Earth itself.” American bureaucrats, diplomats, and army engineers swarmed the globe, remaking a post-Cold War world into post-post-Cold War one. “Naturally, with a whole passel of bad guys out there, a ‘global swamp’ to be ‘drained,’ we armed ourselves to kill, not stun.”

The American Way of War is brimming with insights. Engelhardt develops the fascinating argument that the history of the past 11 decades is the history of the airplane and our use of it for war, from the Sopwith Camel to the drone piloted remotely out of Las Vegas. In rather Chomsky-like (or perhaps Orwellian) fashion, one of Engelhardt’s later chapters explores the perversion of words in the English language to make the idea of war more palatable for the public and keep perpetual conflict “hidden in plain sight.” Engelhardt claims the Bush administration redefined patriotism and American identity, polarizing the country. Anyone who challenged the war, the Bush line went, must either be a “wuss” or a traitor.

In great detail, the author shows the continuity of thought from Clinton to Obama, revealing, not surprisingly, that the current president controls, possesses, and wields the greatest amount of power—in terms of military, real estate, and budget—anywhere or anytime. Never did Obama plan to follow through with his peace promises made during the 2008 campaign.

Too often, Engelhardt sagaciously concludes, Americans spend their time in a future that cannot possibly be known, imagining their country’s role as savior and messiah. But Engelhardt notes that only the past can reveal our true selves. “Not even Americans can occupy the future,” he writes. “It belongs to no one.”

Not even to the bastards.

Brad Birzer is the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies and Professor of History at Hillsdale College. He is the author, most recently, of American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll.

The American Conservative relies upon readers like you to make articles like this one possible. Please make a tax-deductible donation [2] today–and enjoy TAC for another new year.

While supplies last, our most generous donors may request a signed copy [3] of Bill Kauffman’s Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism.

31 Comments (Open | Close)

31 Comments To "Evil Empire"

#1 Comment By david Peterson On December 14, 2010 @ 8:45 pm

According to Saint Paul, Suffering leads to Endurance, which leads to Courage which leads to HOPE. It looks like Americans are now experiencing a good strong dose of the first. Now, all we really need are the other three.

Merry Christmas to all, Happy 2011

#2 Pingback By Tweets that mention The American Conservative » Evil Empire — Topsy.com On December 15, 2010 @ 10:13 am

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by AmericanConservative and Bradley J. Birzer, Marty Browne. Marty Browne said: RT @amconmag: Brad Birzer reviews Tom Engelhardt's "The American Way of War" | [4] […]

#3 Comment By Bill R. On December 15, 2010 @ 11:25 am

Q: Is there any point to this diatribe ?
A: No
Q: Has the US downscaled its military presence abroad in the past twenty years ?
A: Yes it has.
Q; Do the paleoncons have any other strategic goal than to throw Israel under the bus and to appease the bad guys in Eurasia ?
A: These people have no moral compass, and are strategically tune deaf. That’s why they write books like this one.

#4 Comment By Joe A On December 15, 2010 @ 4:52 pm

Bill R., the only downsizing that has taken place has been to remove forces from one location to use them in another. The budget and global footprint for defense has been on an upward trajectory for the last 20 years without any enemy nearly as credible or dangerous as the USSR to justify its existence. What part of spending a trillion dollars to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is “downsizing”? We can’t even manage to dismantle our bases in Germany and Eastern Europe, and the Cold War ended 20 years ago. We’re in a recession and the Pentagon will still get a what, 3.5% budget increase for next year?

As for paleocons, however grumpy they may sound at times their moral compass is certainly sound, and they most certainly authentic Americans who do not serve nameless Eurasian bad guys, unlike the neocon lapdogs of Israel who lead the Washington arbiters of acceptable opinion these days. I’m 29, and I’m rapidly becoming a grumpy paleocon, thank you very much.

Excellently written review! The only complaint I would voice is that its polemical language will drive away some who have doubts about or even oppose our endless wars, but who would find this review unpatriotic in tone. In other words, ordinary sensible people who just haven’t heard anything besides the news on TV.

#5 Pingback By America as a war state « Foseti On December 15, 2010 @ 7:29 pm

[…] At TAC: “Because the United States does not look like a militarized country, it’s hard for Americans to grasp that Washington is a war capital, that the United States is a war state, that it garrisons much of the planet, and that the norm for us is to be at war somewhere (usually, in fact, many places) at any moment.” . . . What a world might be like in which we began not just to withdraw our troops from one war to fight another, but to seriously scale down the American global mission, close those hundreds of bases—as of 2010, there were almost 400 of them, macro to micro, in Afghanistan alone—and bring our military home is beyond imagining. To discuss such obviously absurd possibilities makes you an apostate to America’s true religion and addiction, which is force. However much it might seem that most of us are peaceably watching our TV sets or computer screens or iPhones, we Americans are also—always—marching to war. We may not all bother to attend the church of our new religion, but we all tithe. We all partake. In a sense we live peaceably in a state of war. […]

#6 Comment By Nel On December 17, 2010 @ 6:50 am

Any discussion on Obama’s administration that ignores the Lobby factor is out of context, therefore meaningless.

#7 Comment By Adam Rurik On December 18, 2010 @ 10:06 am

“…the neocon lapdogs of Israel who lead the Washington arbiters of acceptable opinion these days. ”

Joe, A+!!!

#8 Pingback By Blue Mussels, Moon Snails | Whimsy Speaks On December 18, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

[…] Not something you’d expect from the American Conservative: […]

#9 Pingback By The military-industrial complex « Progressive Blogic On December 18, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

[…] the public because, as was the case for me, the numbers are so big they just don’t seem real. Tom Engelhardt offers this assessment of the American military complex in “The American Way of War”: […]

#10 Comment By Jerry Carter On December 19, 2010 @ 6:15 am

“(Too bad we don’t still call it the Department of War, which would be far more honest.)”

To be more accurate, Sir, I’m seventy-five and long ago began referencing this monstrosity as the Department of Offense.

A true Dept. of Defense would have its focus on our southern border, not slogging around the cesspool of the British designed and created Middle East.

#11 Pingback By Tomgram: Bill McKibben, Why Obama and Canc–n Miss the Point – Left Blog Feeds- Progressive News On December 19, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

[…] Wars Became Obama’s, which has received superb reviews from both The Nation and American Conservative Magazine, a reminder of what a new world we’re actually in.  If you’re interested in my past […]

#12 Comment By Brent Lawler On December 19, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

Liberty, Peace, and prosperity. Without the first two, we can’t have the latter, and we will lose it sooner rather than later! I love the american conservative for having the testicular fortitude to print the truth about our foreign policy!!! We spend more on our military than the rest of the world COMBINED. And you mean to tell me we can’t cut back, quit being a global police force, quit nation building, and forcing our way of life on the rest of the world? You complain when the Federal Government tells you how you have to live your life. You say they have no right to impose their policies on your town or State, but it’s perfectly fine if they do the same thing on the other side of the world in the name of defense! Get real. Protect our borders, our country, and tell the rest of the world to figure it out themselves! We aren’t going to pay for it anymore!!!

#13 Comment By Jeff On December 19, 2010 @ 6:03 pm

@DP – right, but you have to take a step towards those goals. Start a civil disobedience against Zionist rule of American power houses and set up your own militia to fight those civil servants working for Evil governments of US.

#14 Comment By stephen gosling On December 19, 2010 @ 7:28 pm

Easy to resolve: Cut the defence Budget by 50%. and the following year cut it by 50% again.

#15 Comment By Ken – Free Thinking Radical On December 20, 2010 @ 11:41 pm

What stood out for me was this quote, “Brad, why are you so upset, don’t you realize that we finally have a chance to end war and poverty, permanently?”

I’m continuously astonished by the extreme naivete of allegedly mature adults like this. I’ve heard other stories like this, as well as having run into it personally and it makes me despair for the future of humanity like nothing else.

When people can seriously believe stuff like that about Obama, or any President really, you have to ask, “what wont they believe?”

It explains so much about human history, and why the evil tyrants always find so many willing accomplices.

Ken
Laser Guided Loogie

#16 Comment By Fredrick Porter On December 21, 2010 @ 4:53 am

Hitler said it best, and he should have known. “What luck for the rulers that men do not think.”

#17 Comment By Dave On December 21, 2010 @ 7:56 am

Pogo said it some decades back: “We have met the enemy and he is us!” Ignorance is all around us and our “education system” seems to perpetuate it.
“Not to know what happened before you were born makes you always a child.”

#18 Comment By Randy On December 21, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

Hey Bill

“Q: Has the US downscaled its military presence abroad in the past twenty years ?”

Sure we have. In fact, now we only spend as much as the rest of the world combined. Bill, does that seem a bit odd to you?

#19 Comment By Frank Brady On December 21, 2010 @ 4:54 pm

I don’t know what “Bill” has been smoking, but if you really want to understand what has happened to us (Republicans generally and conservatives in particular), the article at [5] is most illuminating.

#20 Comment By John Jacques On December 21, 2010 @ 6:22 pm

Yeah. Whatever happened to the “Peace Dividend” we were supposed to get after the fall of the USSR? Suddenly our former friend Saddam Hussein became our arch enemy. Total [email protected]#$%.

#21 Comment By Bill R. On December 23, 2010 @ 1:03 pm

I see a lot of breast beating on this site, what I do not see is a realistic grasp of strategy. Don’t like forward bases ? Well read Mearsheimer on the “stopping power of water”. Why, oh why do you want our people to be on the wrong side of the water when our vital interests are at stake ? Do you think weapons are any less lethal, have shorter ranges, can’t move as fast as in WWII ? Oh, yeah, most of you would have sat that one out as well. Cowards and bullies to the last man of you. I’m a Republican and a conservative who has not yielded. As Churchill said, “never, never, never, never give in”.

#22 Comment By Henry On December 25, 2010 @ 10:02 am

Brad Birzer has missed his calling. He should be in the French Cabinet, circa 1940 or 41, He’d feel right at home – and no neo-con lapdogs of Israel in a position to bother him, either!

#23 Comment By nick On December 25, 2010 @ 11:52 am

Just look back in history how the Britisch empire declined and that the US is now emulating it. The US is like a skittish horse with blinders on and just refuses to see and learn from history.

#24 Comment By An OKie On December 25, 2010 @ 9:30 pm

Honestly, what’s everyone’s beef with Israel?
The sooner that people get it through their heads that war is something that is perpetual and eternal as long as there are men who desire power or who hate, the better off we all will be.

#25 Comment By Jerry Carter On December 26, 2010 @ 10:58 am

With ever diminishing hope I await the day when we beat our swords into autos and appliances.

With ever diminishing hope I await the day when we beat our swords into autos and appliances.

There is nothing wrong with this country that a true conservative party could not fix. Alas, the Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber parties have effectively legislatively eliminated this as a viable alternative.

#26 Comment By Jerry Carter On December 26, 2010 @ 11:00 am

Still fighting half a century agos wars, Bill R?

To h*** with you and all jingoists!

#27 Comment By Jim Maas On December 28, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

The “strategic plan” of the Founders was to offer friendship and trade with all nations, entangling alliances with none. The few nations which have followed that simple, frugal plan will have a very different future from ours.

#28 Comment By cfountain72 On December 28, 2010 @ 4:37 pm

“Cowards and bullies to the last man of you. I’m a Republican and a conservative who has not yielded. As Churchill said, “never, never, never, never give in”.”

Cowards and bullies? Umm…come again? What does that even mean?

Not yielded to what? To whom?

Specifically, what ‘strategy’ do you refer to? What ‘vital interests’ are you talking about? In Germany? Okinawa? South Korea? Baghdad?

Peace be with you.

#29 Comment By cfountain72 On December 30, 2010 @ 8:52 am

“Brad Birzer has missed his calling. He should be in the French Cabinet, circa 1940 or 41, He’d feel right at home – and no neo-con lapdogs of Israel in a position to bother him, either!”

Henry, can you please elaborate on this comment. I think Mr. Birzer’s piece was excellent, so I’m a little unclear over what you’re saying here.

#30 Pingback By My Weekly Twitter Updates for 2011-02-06 On February 6, 2011 @ 8:05 pm

[…] Empire [6] […]

#31 Comment By Horapollo On June 10, 2013 @ 7:43 am

The United States DOES look like a militarized country. Look at all these jack-booted thugs roaming the streets, looking for anyone who breaks the occupier’s demands? It’s straight up domestic occupation – the difference is these little brainwashed pigs – including most conservatives – will just accept anything they were born into.

I have no sympathy for the American people. They demand this socialist, militarist crap. Well, I hope they get their teeth knocked in, bunch of troglodytes.